Local Officials Endorse Right To Counsel In Eviction Cases

Jul 17, 2019

David Dunwell and other tenant-rights advocates spoke to the Springfield City Council about a bill pending in the state legislature that would provide low-income tenants with a lawyer for eviction cases. The council voted to endorse the bill.
Credit WAMC

     A bill being considered by state lawmakers in Massachusetts would provide legal counsel to low-income tenants facing eviction. In the midst of a worsening housing crunch, advocates are working to drum up local support for it.

   The Springfield City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution endorsing the bill after hearing this week from tenants-rights advocates and attorneys who practice in Massachusetts Housing Courts.

   "The goal of this bill is to try and level the playing field," said  Hugh Heisler, a Springfield attorney.

     He said having a lawyer in an eviction case can make a big difference in the outcome and often results in preventing someone from losing their home. But, in the vast majority of eviction cases tenants do not have an attorney.

  "There are nonprofit legal services programs throughout the state, but their resources are so limited and the demand for legal assistance in eviction cases so enormous it overwhelms their capacity," said Heisler.

   The resolution adopted by the Springfield City Council said in the more than 40,000 eviction cases in Massachusetts last year only 7 percent of tenants were represented by a lawyer.

               " What we would like to see is a system that represents tenants fairly and undersand their rights and lead to more housing stability in the region," said City Councilor Jesse Lederman, who sponsored the resolution. He said the right to counsel bill is a homelessness prevention measure.

    Karen White told councilors that after a medical emergency she was unable to keep up her mortgage payments and her house is in foreclosure.  Armed with some free legal advice, she has gone to court and so far has managed to hang on to her home.

  " I can now understand why there are so many people homeless because if you can not afford an attorney and do not know where to get help you will be railroaded through the system, " said White.

   Rose Webster-Smith, the program coordinator with the housing rights organization Springfield No One Leaves, said landlords try to take advantage of tenants who don’t know their legal rights.

   " Many people sign agreements that create a judgement against them and do not understand this is a permanent scar on their record that could lead to landlords not renting to them," said Webster-Smith.

   Earlier this month, the Northampton City Council passed a resolution supporting the right to counsel bill.  Boston Mayor Marty Walsh testified in support of it at a hearing this week before the legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

    The bill does not propose a way to pay for lawyers to represent people in housing court.

    Advocates say providing more legal assistance could eventually lower the public expenses for social service programs.